The life of the founder of the famous frontier force
British India gave rise to a number of notable regiments and among them were few which could compare with the individualism, élan, fame and prowess of the Corps of Guides. This magnificent unit was formed in 1847 to comprise both cavalry and infantry and its purpose was to provide reliable men to act as guides to forces active in the field and to act as intelligence gatherers on the troubled borderlands of the North West Frontier. Its men were drawn from the fierce tribal men of the high country of the north of the Sub-Continent and their martial traditions ensured they were troops of the highest calibre. The man called upon to raise and command this exemplary unit was Harry Burnett Lumsden. Born aboard ship in the Bay of Bengal in 1821, the son of a serving officer in India, Lumsden had India in his blood from the outset. He joined the 59th Bengal Native Infantry in 1838 and was engaged in the disastrous First Afghan War at the forcing of the Khyber Pass. British India could only be consolidated as a whole by the subjugation of its most significant military power, the Sikhs of the Punjab and Lumsden fought in both Sikh Wars—being wounded at Sobraon in the first of them in February 1846. It was, however, for his creation of the Guides that he earned his fame as one of the notable figures of British India. This is the story of Lumsden’s life and campaigns and it is an invaluable addition to any library of the Raj period.
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I must explain that in 1846 I was an assistant political agent, under Sir Henry Lawrence, and posted to assist Colonel George Lawrence at Peshawur, when the order arrived for me to raise the Guides in addition to my political duties.<br>
The object of the corps was to have trustworthy men who could at a moment’s notice act as guides to troops in the field, and collect intelligence beyond as well as within the border. There were no British troops in those days—European or native—anywhere in the Punjab except at Lahore. All the military duties were performed by the old Seikh army, one division of which was at Peshawur under its own general and staff officers, but at the disposal of Colonel George Lawrence.<br>
While the Seikh sirdars carried on the administration of the country, a brigade used to be sent out to the Yusafzai district to collect the Government revenue, and according to the custom of the country, collected not only what was the fixed revenue but quite as much more for the benefit of the influential officers of the expedition. These exactions were, as a matter of course, strenuously resisted by most of the tribes, and seldom collected without a fight and destruction of villages.<br>
To obviate this most unsatisfactory state of things, Lawrence sent me on a cold weather trip to see the country, and, if possible, to make some sort of an arrangement with the heads of tribes. During this tour I made the acquaintance of all the most influential men in the country, and soon found there would be but little trouble in settling everything almost as I liked, were the detested Seikh troops only kept out of the way. As I had by this time collected some fifty horsemen and twenty infantry, chiefly down-countrymen and Persians, I got orders to set to work at once on a rough revenue settlement, which naturally brought me in contact with the heads of villages, from among whose younger sons and relations I soon selected a score of first-class Pathan recruits for the Guides. All went on well for a time until a village called Babuzai on the Buneyr frontier, which had once gained a high reputation on the border by repulsing an attack of a whole brigade of Seikhs, refused to pay its share of revenue, and obliged Lawrence to come out with a force of Seikhs to my assistance.<br>
The Seikhs attacked the village in front, while the Guides stole up to the crest of the ridge and dropped down in rear of the enemy, turning all their breastworks and rendering them untenable. Away went the defenders, with my men in pursuit, so close on their heels that Futteh Khan (Khuttuk), then a trooper in the cavalry, got blown up in cutting down a man who happened to be carrying a bag of powder in one hand, and a lighted matchlock in the other. This was the Guides’ first taste of powder, and a most trying ordeal for raw troops, as they had to scramble up the hill in the dark, over stones and rocks, but not a man lagged behind or lost his way.<br>
Sometime after this, Arsula Khan, chief of Zeda district, ran off to the Buneyr hills with Government revenue, and made two or three raids on Hindu traders passing along the border, subjecting them to severe torture, in order to extort a ransom.<br>
Entering the hills as soon as it was dark, escorted by a troop of Seikh Regular Cavalry and twenty-five Guide sowars, and advancing as rapidly as I could, undiscovered, to the village, I was not a little taken aback to find that my Guides alone had followed me, the Seikhs having remained outside at the foot of the hills. Fortunately the discovery was made while it was yet dark, so that the villagers could not see the strength of our party, and we put them in a horrid fright by keeping our horses clattering round the place, and calling on the men to come out and give up their arms, before we opened great guns on them.<br>
As the women and children were all in the place, and unable to escape, the men lost heart, and eventually coming out, one by one, were tied up and secured, and marched off with all their cattle to the open plains without a shot being fired; but unfortunately the object of the expedition, Arsula Khan, had left the village the afternoon before we visited the place. “Swagger did the trick.” Half an hour’s warning would have brought two or three hundred matchlockmen on us in a narrow defile.